What I remember from our Exeter team: How much running is enough running?

Mile one at Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve, Leavey Invite.  Photo Steven Bugarin .

The Phillips Exeter Academy cross country teams in 1974 and 1975 were very good.  We defeated our arch rival Andover decisively both years.  In 1975 the score was 16-46, as we placed one through four and then number six.  Andover had been undefeated before our race.  Chris Reich, the number five guy for us who finished sixth, kicked himself afterwards for not trying harder to score the sweep.  We won the New England Interscholastic Championships decisively both years, as well.   In the 1975 Interschols, as we called them, we scored just 28 points, with all of our seven in the top 12.  David Hansen was 3rd, Rick Samaha 4th (our regular #1, it was his worst race of the year), Mark Hagler 6th, Reich 7th, Peter Stalker 8th, John Kermath 1oth, and Todd Young 12th.  If it had been a dual meet, the score would have been 28-28 against Andover, Northfield-Mt. Hermon, Deerfield, and the other seven schools in the meet.  We would win on the sixth runner tiebreaker. (Actually, I didn’t remember all these details.  Rick Samaha sent me the results when I emailed him.)

As a college freshman on the cross country team at Northwestern University in the fall of 1976, I listened to the Illinois guys on the team—Jim Brown from Wheaton St. Francis and Scott Williams from Palatine, come to mind—talk about the great York, Bloom, and Deerfield high school teams of the mid-1970s.  They were touted, I remember, as the best teams in the country.   I don’t think I ever said anything, but I always wondered how our Exeter team might have fared against them—especially in a head to head dual meet.  Yes, back then we ran dual meets, and they actually meant something.  It is hard to compare cross country courses and times.  But by my count, we had ten guys on our 1975 team who could run under 10:00 minutes for two miles on the track, with our best guy, Rick Samaha, at 9:18; I ran a 4:31 mile that year, and I was number 12 on the team.  We could have given York a run for its money.

Our coach was Ralph Lovshin, who, after what I remember as 43 years as track and cross country coach at Exeter, retired after that 1975-76 year.  We made him an honorary member of our class.  In the years following our graduation, whenever we returned to Exeter for a visit, he would show us that he was wearing the class ring we had given him.  Then he would say, “You guys won the Interschols with just 28 points—28 points.”  He would shake his head in amazement.  We always felt special about that accomplishment.

Exeter was a boarding school—and it was a hard school, with heavy duty academic demands.  Sports were required of all the students, so it was part of our daily routine to run with the team.   In the summers, all but a few of us—the so-called “day students”—dispersed to homes around the country, to Montana, to New York, to Michigan, to Maryland, to Texas.   We would return to school fairly late in September, as I remember it.    So our cross country season was a short one.  We had no prescribed summer training regimen.  It was just understood that we should run in order to be ready for the season.  Most of the guys, as I remember it, did not run all that much.  Working in our favor, however, was that our track season was actually two seasons, basically covering the rest of the school year.  We ran “winter track” from November to March.  We ran spring track from March until the end of May.   So we basically had nine months of running with our coaches.  That was something that we built upon, perhaps, from season to season and one year to the next.

It is probably an indication of the natural ability of many of my teammates that they ran so well, considering our modest summer training program.   Rick Samaha, I remember, did some summer track after his junior year, running in Maryland, and that training seemed to contribute a lot to his big improvements during his senior year.  But an even bigger testament to that talent, perhaps, would be the fact that we probably only ran around 40 miles a week or so even when we were training as a team.  Of course, maybe it was just intelligent and efficient coaching.

We ran two timed workouts each week—12 or 16 times 400 on the cinder track, with about a minute rest, or 3 or 4 times a mile out on the country roads, or 6×800 around the athletic fields.  Today we would call these our VO2 max workouts.  We ran two timed distance runs each week of about 6 miles; Coach Lovshin, driving what I remember as a big old Buick or GMC car, would chase us up and down the country roads outside of town, jumping from mile to mile to record our splits.  As we got in shape and ran these faster toward the middle and end of the season, these were probably threshold runs.  Friday was an easy day before a Saturday race.  Sometimes we ran on Sundays with a small group of closer friends, but many of my teammates took Sunday off.  So we also got rest.

Alberto Salazar, who would go on to win NCAA championships at Oregon, set a disputed world record at the New York City marathon and win at Boston, and run in the Olympics, was running as a high school senior in Massachusetts at the same time, winning the public school state championship there, and he was certainly running a lot more than we did.  There were some local New Hampshire high schools with some very good runners that I knew a little bit, because I lived in Exeter, and I knew they were known to be heavy mileage fanatics.  On our own team, one of our top Exeter runners in the 1974-75 season, Sam Winebaum, was a mileage guy who did a lot more running than everyone else, including a full schedule of summer road racing; as a 17-year-old, in fact, he ran a 2:37 marathon.    He was certainly running 70- and 80-mile weeks as a high school junior and senior.  Because I sometimes ran with Sam on vacations and in the summers, I probably ran a bit more than my teammates.  It was frustrating when they beat me, of course.

As a coach of high school athletes, I have never bought into the 1000-mile summer programs I hear about with some of the top programs in Illinois—most notably at York and Neuqua Valley.  Of course, that heavy duty summer work is one simple explanation for why those schools win state championships, and our program doesn’t.   Our summer mileage chart tops out at around 60 miles a week, assuming seven days of running for the week;  this is also voluntary running, not in a structured daily camp, and so the boys run, like we did at Exeter in the summers, on their own.   During the cross country season, our top runners are doing between 50 and 60 miles each week, depending upon how much they run on Sundays—certainly more than most of my Exeter teammates ran.

The more miles you run, of course, the more chances that you experience training injuries.  Not surprisingly, we were a pretty healthy group at Exeter—although we had plenty of depth if someone got injured.  The injuries that I remember were mainly sprained ankles from running in the woods and on the rutted trails where we competed.  There were no Detweiller grass highways or roped off athletic field courses when we raced.   And of course in New England there were lots of hills in those woods, as well.   We tend to be a pretty healthy group at Ignatius, as well, running our moderate levels of miles.

Law 9 of training from Tim Noakes says, “Achieve as much as possible on a minimum of training.”  Others have described the increases in training miles as a process of diminishing returns.  Forty miles a week in training might yield significant improvements compared to running 20 miles a week.  But the benefits of 80 miles a week are not automatically twice the benefits of 40 miles a week—or even the same benefits of moving from 20 to 40 miles.  I have already noted in the previous blog Noakes’s admonitions against overtraining–a big theme in training books by Jack Daniels and Peter Pfitzinger, as well.

How much is enough?  How much is too much?  I suppose I am still looking for answers.

In case you missed it, I am going to quote a comment posted on my last blog entry by North Shore Country Day’s Patrick McHugh, coach of 2009 and 2010 IHSA state champion Peter Callahan.  I had asked him about some specifics of his program with Callahan—and he’s promised them in his own blog at some point (also listed on my blog roll).  McHugh, as it happens, ran at Andover a few years after I ran at Exeter.   He recommends the cycling of harder weeks and easier ones, higher mileage weeks and lesser mile weeks:  “One of the things I have become recently interested in is the idea of muscle stiffness—Frans Bosch, author of Running, calls it muscle slack. But what it really means is are you a super ball or are you a tomato?  Peter was a super ball — a lot of it was natural. But there were certainly elements that we emphasized in training.  My worry in watching most high school training is the over emphasis on lots of miles has led to too many tomatoes.  You certainly need miles. But you need lower volume weeks — but never losing some speed — to encourage your muscles need to be a super ball.  That’s why I love the cycling.  There are certainly individual differences and differences for races.  I think the Bannister model is what we need to look at more closely.  Bannister trained 5-6 days a week for an hour at lunch. He focused on what the race demands.   Talented sure — but also efficient.”

As we consider ways to make our Ignatius team better, asking our boys to run dramatically more miles won’t be part of the plan.  Some reasonable summer and in-season miles are, of course, important.   But maybe with some careful tweaking of our overall training plan we can achieve success as a high school cross country team without running those heavy doses of summer and in-season training miles.

We didn’t really need it when I ran on one of the best high school teams that I have ever seen.



Filed under coaching, cross country running, running

2 responses to “What I remember from our Exeter team: How much running is enough running?

  1. Awesome post Ed! Yes indeed I was a higher mileage guy. I tended to peak early in the XC season as a result… The Don Putnam crew, and that included many of the early Nike people working R&D and manufacturing then in Exeter, were big on trail running and especially snow mobile trail running in the winter. I couldn’t have asked for 2 better running mentors in my early years than Putnam and the incredible Coach Lovshin. It was never the same in college although the terrain in Hanover was awesome and I had wonderful team mates. Those early high mileage years and lots of trail running in that mix gave me a good lifelong base and thankfully few injuries along the way. I did “retire” for about 20 years doing occasional 3 x 4 week jogging and no racing. In recent years I re started competing and still love the “race”. Sure I picked up the race fever from those tight team finishes at Exeter! Sam Winebaum

  2. If you are still not convinced in terms of the mileage debate, here is a post from Patrick McHugh with more details about coaching Peter Callahan, who ran 4:05 his senior year in high school and won the IHSA Class A title in both the 800 and 1500. Peter has gone on to more success in college at Princeton. Peter really ran only in the winter and the spring, and his weekly mileage topped out at around 30 miles each week.

    Training a 4:05 high school miler:

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